Kenny Lerner’78 recognized serendipity when it came, even though it communicated to him mainly in sign language, which he didn’t understand at the time.
Sitting in the audience of a Broadway theatre shortly after graduating from Beloit, he found himself riveted by a new play called Children of a Lesser God. This story about the relationship between a deaf student, her hearing teacher, and their two worlds colliding moved Lerner beyond words. He was captivated by the sign language that bridged the characters’ lives.
He walked out of the theatre unable to stop his hands from moving. A couple of days later, he met friends at a bar and, by complete chance, ended up sitting next to a deaf person, burning to communicate.
“Something inside me wanted to learn sign language,” he says. “And later, it took over my whole being.”
So Lerner topped off his Beloit degree in history with a master’s degree in deaf education from the University of Virginia. That move formally embraced his passion for sign language and took his life in a new direction—one that straddles the worlds of the deaf and the hearing. He eventually took a job in the history department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology, where he teaches today.
But something happened at the school in 1984 that Lerner considers one part in a series of lucky accidents. He met Beat poet Jim Cohn, who was there learning sign language as a new avenue for expressing his poetry. Cohn happened to catch a performance by noted deaf poet Peter Cook, who was on campus performing in sign language for deaf students. Cohn encouraged Cook to broaden his work to include hearing audiences.
That’s where Lerner came in. “Cohn introduced me to Cook and we just clicked,” he says.
Kenny Lerner’78 (left) and Peter Cook rehearse for a Flying Words performance in the Richardson Auditorium last April. The two compose and perform poetry in American Sign Language.
Cook and Lerner started composing poetry together in American Sign Language and pioneered a one-of-a-kind performance art that uses mime, signing, sound, spoken word, and movement that exploits the cinematic aspects of the language. For a time, Rochester was the hub of an emerging deaf poetry movement that was tied to Beat poetry, and Lerner was at the center of it. Allen Ginsberg came to campus, inspiring Lerner and Cook with his image-based poetry. Lerner went on to help found a poetry series featuring deaf poets from around the world—the only series of its kind in the country at the time.
While the initial intensity of the movement has faded, Lerner and Cook’s project, called Flying Words, continues to thrive. On stage, Cook signs the pair’s poetry with dramatic style and physicality, while Lerner collaborates with an extra pair of hands and his voice, which fills in gaps for the hearing audience. The two have performed across the country, and in Austria, France, Ireland, Latvia, and the Netherlands.
During a recent performance at Beloit, Lerner and Cook presented poetry on subjects that were in turn thought-provoking, imagistic, and funny—a dog trained for tunnel duty in Vietnam, a cherry tree in spring time, the wordless exchanges of a pitcher and catcher during a baseball game. Lerner says the goal is for hearing audiences to see the images. “Peter is one of the greatest signers in the country,” he says. “We want people to see the art of it.”
At one point in the performance, Cook turned and scrawled the word ART on the smudged blackboard in the Richardson Auditorium.
Being in his former history classroom at Beloit reminded Lerner of his influential professors—Tom McBride and Bob Hodge, to name a couple, and the fun he had with a group of students called the Basic Elmos, who were known for donning outrageous costumes and committing absurd acts.
These days, Lerner reminds his own students to be curious and open about the people and ideas that enter their lives. “I always tell my students: You can start doing one thing, accidentally meet someone, and find something else,” he says. “Be open to those accidents.”
An 18-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Lt. Col. William Reinhart is not the first Beloiter to enter the armed forces, but he is among a select few who have built distinguished careers in the service.
The class of 1990 alumnus returned to campus last spring to offer Beloit students an insider’s view of how the military is evolving to meet mission objectives in volatile and rapidly changing political environments. In a series of classroom visits, Reinhart engaged students in thoughtful give-and-take discussions that addressed conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the differences between small wars and conventional military conflicts, and the relationship between elected civilian governments and military institutions.
Students listened intently as Reinhart described the 19 months he spent in Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq and his encounters with coalition troops, civilians, and translators. Administrative duties kept him largely on base, but Reinhart also served as a personnel representative for Iraqi security force development and consulted regularly with Marines in the field.
Will Reinhart’90, one of a small number of Beloiters who have established careers in the military, addresses student members of the Model U.N. Club during a campus visit last spring.
Such exposure, coupled with a master’s degree in administration and a penchant for relaxing with a good history book, honed his insight into the changing character and roles of the armed forces. According to Reinhart, today’s military strives to lay a foundation for conflict-resolution, security, and stability through the collaborative efforts of soldiers, federal agencies, and on-the-ground operatives that reach out to local leaders and citizens. This represents a significant departure from earlier strategies that imposed authority through martial law. “Success in a mission is about gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the people for ourselves and whatever government we are trying to support or establish,” he explains, adding that the battle for the hearts and minds of people living in conflict zones is the most human and unpredictable endeavor of warfare. “The irony is, in many cases if you want to build trust and work with the local population, you’ve got to put yourself at more risk than you would in a conventional conflict.”
In an evening presentation that drew a standing-room-only crowd, Reinhart outlined how the war in Iraq serves as a case-study for viable inter-agency cooperation. He asserted that the 2007 troop surge was but one of several factors that contributed to increased security and stability during the latter half of 2007 and 2008. In fact, he pointed out, the extensive and coordinated diplomatic efforts of the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State agents were an essential stabilizing force in the region.
Reinhart’s astute observations come as no surprise to Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor of political science and Reinhart’s Beloit mentor. They have stayed in touch over the years through regular email correspondence. Duerst-Lahti recalls one missive in which Reinhart contemplated Iraq’s future through the lens of ideas advanced by 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. “I am proud to see how much he has taken from his time at Beloit and how perceptively he can analyze the situation as a result,” she says.
Now a unit commander at the U.S. Marine Corps Personnel Administration School at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Reinhart supervises the training of fellow Marines ranging from recent inductees to career officers. He knows that the women and men who pass through the school are probably the same Marines who will be going from “one very tough fight in Iraq to another very tough fight in Afghanistan.” All things considered, Reinhart has faith in the troops’ ability to respond effectively to the challenge. “My sense is that—because of our experience in Iraq—we’ll be smart enough to pull out the broad, enduring lessons that are applicable no matter where we are.”
— N. Marie Dries’92
By John Rosenwald
Marion Stocking is dead.
For 33 years she was part of our life, with quarterly meetings of the Beloit Poetry Journal editorial board delineating our annual calendar: New Year’s Eve, Spring Break, July, Fall Break. Driving or flying to Lamoine, Maine, to her house near the shore where the blueberry fields swept down to the bay.
Marion, and her husband Dave, who in 1976 drove to our cabin on Garland Pond in Maine when they heard we’d be joining the Beloit community on a one-year appointment and offered both warm greetings and jars of blueberry compote.
Marion, who that first year, desperate to pee, rang the doorbell of our Chapin Street apartment in Beloit, and asked to use the john. I looked at her askance, said, “In our house we call it the marion.” She returned the look, thought a second, quipped, “You’ll do.”
Marion, who paid attention to every thing around her and kept most of it. The only person I’ve known who washed Saran Wrap and rewound it on its cardboard tube.
She was meticulous and demanding. As editor of the BPJ she received an average of 9.6 manuscripts a day (yes, she counted them; yes, I follow in her footsteps). And read them. All of them. And never knew, I hope, before we gained her discipline, how our Chapin Street closet filled with black garbage bags of unread manuscripts that spring of 1980 when she and Dave were in England doing research on Claire Clairmont.
|Beloit College Archives
Marion Kingston Stocking, professor emerita of English, taught at Beloit from 1954-1984. She received an honorary doctorate in 2000, and kept in touch with many of her former students until she died on May 12, 2009, at 86. She was widely known and respected for editing the Beloit Poetry Journal, a quarterly magazine of contemporary poetry.
Meticulous and demanding. A perfectionist. After Dave died in 1984 I joined the process of completing her 50-plus years work on Claire, friend to the Shelleys, mother of Byron’s child. I urged speed, arguing that mistakes made in the first edition could be corrected in the second. Again that glance. She walked me to the filing cabinet, removed “Journals of Claire Clairmont—Corrections,” pulled out the smallest of paper scraps. On it: “p. 372, ln. 6, comma.” Replacing the file, she cautioned, “And I found that one.”
So now my co-editor Lee Sharkey and I proofread each issue of the BPJ five times before turning it over to our professional proofreader, then two more times afterwards. We owe that to our poets. Marion taught us that.
My wife Ann and Lee and I hesitated to suggest in 2003 that Marion might need to relax her hold on the magazine she had run for 50 years. We suspected she might feel proprietary, resent our impertinence, cling to her position as editor and president of our foundation. True, she didn’t see why our computerized database should replace her hand-written card file of subscribers. But she eased our transition gracefully, able at last to turn to her own writing projects, her ME-moirs, as she called them.
And it was the most significant of her ME-moirs she carried to her death. As the lymphoma rapidly spread through her body, she finally realized she would not have the hours she wanted for final revisions of To the Wilderness, her verbal recreation of the summer of 1948, which she spent canoeing the network of lakes and rivers of the northern Maine she came to cherish.
Even grammar held her till the end. When her daughter-in-law Anne Stocking left the hospital room to get something for Marion on nearly the last day, saying she’d locate “a doctor, a nurse, whoever I can find,” Marion’s voice followed her out the door: “Whomever.”
As we ended our final phone call, a week before her death, a call rich with her narration about Beloit, the magazine, opera, the blueberries in her front field, she mused aloud, “I think of those people in their 90s zipping around, and I think ‘I could have been one of those. But not this time.’”
So Marion is dead.
A stoic and a pragmatist, she urged no memorials, no elaborate tributes. All I can provide therefore is this cluster of memories. As she might say, “If soul exists, it is the collective memory of our existence.” So don’t worry. She lives on.
Professor of English John Rosenwald, co-editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal, joined Beloit College in 1976.